Fort Nowhere

In which New Times sets out to find the roots of a rootless burg

A few crusty lead balls, flint chips, and yellowed shards of pottery occupy a glass display case on the second floor of the Broward County Main Library. The fragments are less impressive than the colorful maps that accompany them but just as important.

A caption says these pieces, part of an exhibit called "Florida: The Making of a State, a Cartographic Adventure," were found on the Bahia Mar beach by seven-year-old James Vreeland in 1906. The young beachcomber discovered remains of the third and last Fort Lauderdale, which was built during the Second Seminole War in the 1830s.

These days, Fort Lauderdale's roots are buried so deep beneath the metropolis that no one's quite sure where to look. Haphazard mapping (including contradictory charts in the library exhibit) and foggy recollection have assured that not one of the three Fort Lauderdales constructed in the 1830s has been precisely located or archaeologically excavated. South Florida archaeologist Bob Carr has searched three or four times for the forts' remains during the past few decades. He has found nothing. "Whatever's left... has probably been heavily impacted by all the roads and houses," Carr says.

The approximate locations of Fort(s) Lauderdale
The approximate locations of Fort(s) Lauderdale

And as development continues to boom, the chance of finding remnants is becoming slimmer. Neither the first nor the second fort location is marked; at the alleged site of the third, a plaque says the structure was "built early in 1838." But that fort was actually begun in 1839.

It was in search of these forts' locations that Helen Landers and Denyse Cunningham recently piled into Christopher Eck's green Volkswagen Jetta with a New Times reporter (at whose instigation they took the jaunt). Landers, a chatty woman reminiscent of an old-style school marm, has been Broward County historian since 1990. Eck, a youthful archaeologist, is the new director of the historical commission and the county's chief historic preservation officer; he's Landers's new boss but was taking directions from her as he pulled out of the county garage on SW Second Street. Cunningham, new special projects coordinator, remained smiling and quiet; she was there to learn.

"Should we go this way first, Helen?" Eck asked, pointing west.

"I think we should start with the first one," Landers replied, and they sped off on a ten-minute journey into the past.

South Florida was still a mysterious place 167 years ago when the Seminoles heard from Col. (later general and president) Zachary Taylor that they were to be uprooted from the South Florida swamps and deported to Oklahoma. Unsurprisingly, they resisted fiercely; and so in 1836, U.S. Navy Lt. Levin Powell sailed up the New River to scout sites for forts that could be used as jumping-off points for an Everglades invasion. Powell found a suitable spot at the fork of the New River, according to Joe Knetsch, historian for the state Department of Natural Resources. Powell was guided by early settler William Colee (whose name also appears in records as Cooley and Cooly). Seminoles had massacred Colee's wife, three children, and tutor on January 6 of that year. (Fort Lauderdale's Colee Hammock Park is named for them.)

Two years later, Major William Lauderdale of Sumner County, Tennessee, followed Powell's directions to South Florida. A friend of President Andrew Jackson's and a fellow officer in the War of 1812, Lauderdale led a spy battalion of 537 mounted men who had been detailed to persuade the Seminoles to surrender. If the natives refused, they were to be rousted from the swamps. Leaving some detachments behind, Lauderdale and 238 men advanced south from the present-day city of Jupiter, then known as Fort Jupiter. They extended what is now known as Military Trail as they went and on March 6 established "Camp Lauderdale" on the north bank of the river, at the fork.

On March 16, Maj. Gen. Thomas Jesup, commander of the Army in Florida, issued Special Order No. 74, formally dubbing the site Fort Lauderdale. Only two days later, Lt. Col. Joseph Bankhead arrived with 451 men; he relieved Lauderdale and took command of all forces south of Fort Jupiter.

On April 7, Lauderdale and his Tennesseans were ordered to march overland to Tampa Bay and embark for home. Their replacements began building a palisaded pine fort, 60 by 50 feet -- smaller than the Fort Lauderdale City Hall parking lot -- on April 11. They stopped work three days later. After several fruitless expeditions into the swamps in search of Seminoles, the fort was abandoned May 7. Lauderdale, who had been ill when he left South Florida, reached Tampa running a high fever and coughing blood from an unknown illness. He died May 11, 1838, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; in his will, he left a plantation and 40 slaves to his wife in Tennessee.

This first fort was probably located on the northeast corner of SW Ninth Avenue and Fourth Court, according to a 1977 study by J.W. McLaughlin, an engineer and trustee of the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society who superimposed a crude map drawn by Navy Lt. Powell on an 1895 surveyor's plat. Historian Paul George, who has written an unpublished three-volume history of Fort Lauderdale, confirms that it was most likely there, almost two blocks west of today's Seventh Avenue bridge.

Navigating and narrating from the back seat, Landers directed Eck to pull over on the grass by the rusty 11th Avenue bridge next to its 1925 drawbridge shack, just west of the river's fork. From the bridge, she peered around, trying to picture the riverfront site as Powell and Lauderdale would have seen it, pointing out huge trees that might have been standing when the fort was built. She fumbled with her glasses and began to read from William Lauderdale: General Andrew Jackson¹s Warrior, a 1982 biography by Cooper Kirk. "When he talks right here about this fort, [he writes] that they built their fort and little camp right by the fork of the river," Landers says.

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